"A thousand dollars," says the man in the corduroy cap.
"That's right," says the man in the long coat.
"A thousand dollars.... I arm wrestle that man, and you give me a thousand dollars, is that right?"
"Well, you have to beat him," says the man in the long coat, who is putting up the money.
June 13, 1993
"I see." The man in the corduroy cap is a derelict, but his manner of speech is finicky and ostentatiously dignified. "Well, I'm going to have to think about this," he says. "But I'm coming back. And when I do, the champ better watch out."
He squints at a man standing on the corner of 33rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan. The man's name is Dave Patton, and he is the lightweight arm wrestling champion of the world. Patton is smiling. It is early morning, and the shadow of night is still squatting on the streets of New York, but Patton smiles the way he always smiles when anyone challenges his supremacy. The smile is at once put-upon and serene, and it makes him look like a ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d' who takes pleasure banishing rude customers to bad tables. In fact, with his sharpie's mustache and his hairline receding enough to reveal two wedges of scalp, the 160-pound Patton does not resemble anyone's idea of an arm wrestler. Now, sizing him up in the morning darkness, the derelict smiles too, showing his bad teeth, and his voice rises high and shrill as he says, "Watch out, champ!"
It is Patton's first challenge in a morning of challenges intended to demonstrate that no man ought to challenge Dave Patton. He has assembled a big, black table on this street corner, and he has put on a pair of black leather gloves to protect his precious hands. And now, as he props his elbow on the table's padded surface and stands smiling under a piece of poster board that says PIN THE CHAMP AND WIN $1000, he watches his first challengers slink away into the remains of the night.
There are many ways to measure a man. There are as many ways, in fact, as there are men, and the manlier the man, the more specific, the more exacting, the more outlandish the measure. A librarian, for example, might measure his manhood by the simple fact that he lifts weights, while a weightlifter has to measure his by how much weight he lifts. A strong man may have to prove that he is tireless, a tireless man that he can endure pain, a man who can endure pain that he can administer it, and so on, until we arrive at the most rarefied stratum of masculinity, reserved for men who have distanced themselves from the merely strong and merely tireless and can lay claim to that antique and enduring title: he-men.
Dave Patton is a he-man, but he is only the product of all the he-men who came before him.
Moe Baker of Bristol, Conn., was one. How do we know? Because Baker, according to his partisans, not only had 18-inch forearms but could also jump straight out of a 55-gallon drum without ever touching the sides. Cleve Dean, a 600-pound hog farmer from Georgia, was a he-man, too, because he could pick up a full-grown sow under each arm and walk around. Ed Jubinville of Chicopee, Mass., was a he-man because he had mastered the art of muscle control and could make, say, his left pectoral muscle flop around like a fish pulled fresh from the sea. And the legendary Mac Batchlor, from Los Angeles, was a he-man because he could fold four bottle caps in half simply by placing them on his fingers and closing his fist. Like all the great exemplars of their breed, these men grew impatient with the standard measures of manhood and chose to define themselves by feats so specific, demanding and utterly useless that no one ever thought to follow.
The he-man, however, faces a problem precisely because he is one of a kind. What, after all, is the measure of a man among men who have developed their own measures? Would Baker be expected to hoist hogs, or would anyone try to jam Dean into a 55-gallon drum and demand that he jump out of it? No, clearly they had to develop a basis of comparison, a means of communication beyond the babel of their own stunts, and so it was that Baker, Davis, Jubinville and Batchlor, along with a host of others, one as manly as the next, became pioneers in the sport that Dave Patton has mastered: arm wrestling.
Arm wrestling! The lingua franca of he-men! What boy has not measured his impending manhood by pitting his arm against the arms of his fellows? What barroom, what truck stop, what union hall, what locker room cannot sing of the sweat and tears that flow from an epic "pull," as the arm wrestlers sometimes term their matches? Arm wrestling calls to the man who is strong from lifting weights and the man who is strong from digging ditches; it calls to the man whose arm is as thick as a python and the man whose arm is as thin as a cable; to pretty boys and to boys whose prettiest features will always be their tattoos; to big men, to little men and to women of almost feral intensity; to the drunk and the sober, to the screamers and the shy...and, on this morning, on a Manhattan street corner occupied by one of the greatest arm wrestlers in recorded history, it calls to a cross-section of the residents of New York City, which means every kind of person in the world.
But who in the world would arm wrestle Dave Patton? He hasn't lost in something like 12 years. He may weigh only 160, yet his shoulders and neck are so developed that he sometimes looks hunchbacked. He has been known to knock an opponent off his feet with the force of his pull. He works out incessantly, with true he-man specificity, doing 756 biceps curls per session, jacking himself into a state of Pure Pain, concentrating not on his arms—anybody can have big arms!—but on his tendons. The tendons, the hand: these are the weakest parts of the body, and these are what Patton attacks when he arm wrestles, stealing his opponent's strength, short-circuiting the shoulder, bypassing the biceps, reducing the biggest man to his smallest muscles and then humiliating him.
Patton loves that, taking down the big men. He used to go by the nickname Giant Killer, until the spectacle of his beating men twice his size stopped being a surprise, and aficionados simply recognized him as Dave Patton, the master—the master of technique, the master of mind games, "the master of all things," in the words of one opponent. And yet...as the New Yorkers pass him by in their grand, grotesque parade, what they see is not an athlete, a champion, a master; what they see is a fellow manning a sort of lemonade stand of machismo, a fellow who could not weigh much more than...well, 160 pounds...and so they line up to take their free shot at him and collect their thousand bucks.
There are big guys with gaps between their teeth and big guys in leather jackets and big guys who look like tax attorneys and big guys prodded by their girlfriends—"C'mon, he's a little guy! You can beat im!" There is a carload of fledgling arm wrestlers from Queens, and a gnomish 4½-foot-tall woman named Rosa with a scarf wrapped around her head, and a little man with a cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth who mills around, asking, "Vat iz ziss arm rayzling?" More than anything else, though, there are derelicts, with bloodshot eyes and sharp, pickled breath, with spittle on their faces, and they line up, too, to take a shot at Patton, the vestigial he-man in each of them stirred not only by the promise of a payoff but by arm wrestling's democratic essence: the possibility that someone, anyone, in this great city might just be strong enough, manly enough, to step up and, from out of nowhere, blow the champion away.
Yes, they step up, and they go down. The big guys, the derelicts, the arm wrestlers from Queens, even Rosa—one after another, Patton deposits their fists onto the table, sometimes gently, sometimes with a summary and dismissive vengeance. You can see them trudging from the table in defeat, feeling their biceps, flexing their hands and their disbelieving fingers. Pretty soon the big guys start leaving ("He cheats! I want my grand!"), and the acolyte arm wrestlers start gripping Patton's hand, just to feel the power, and the derelicts start commandeering the show, promoting it to passersby ("Pin the champ! Pin the champ and win a thou!") and a certain peckish and bewildered look creeps across Patton's face, a look akin to what one might see on Carl Lewis's were he consigned to running races with pedestrians in street shoes.
See, Patton is not standing on the corner of 33rd and Broadway to promote himself, at least not entirely. He is standing there to promote the sport of arm wrestling. He has been pulling since high school in Chantilly, Va., when he used to battle the big guys—the football players, the football coaches—for lunch money. It was around then, too, that he got into a scuffle with a Washington Redskin offensive lineman after challenging him to a pull in a pizza joint. Patton won his first national championship in 1979, when he was 19, and from the start he has conducted himself, by god, like an athlete, like a serious student of a serious sport, never playing the fool, never screaming, gesticulating, or bugging his eyes like a professional wrestler, always keeping quiet, watching, learning, working out and winning, always winning. And now...what does he want? Money? Sure, he would like to make some money, and he sometimes wonders why he didn't concentrate on tennis or bowling instead of a largely amateur sport like arm wrestling, in which a promoter's idea of a big payday is a thousand bucks. Patton still has to work—he earns $46,000 a year as a computer and electronics engineer at TV Answer, Inc., in Reston, Va.—but arm wrestling is his disease, he would do it for nothing, he does it for nothing, and what he wants, more than anything else, is legitimacy, the respect due to him as a world-class athlete. That's what he is, world class, and the only way people are going to know it is for arm wrestling to become an Olympic sport and for Patton to have a shot at winning a gold medal.
"I think I deserve that," Patton says, "because there's a lot of sports in the Olympics that are not everyday things, not part of life, like arm wrestling. Everybody has arm wrestled at least once. I mean, there's no one I know personally who's done any synchronized swimming."
Arm wrestling is part of life, all right. That is its bane and its glory. How can arm wrestling be an Olympic sport if people arm wrestle for drinks in barrooms? How can arm wrestling elevate itself to some august echelon of athletics if its ambassador, Dave Patton, not only promotes it on a Manhattan street corner but also sees, toward the end of that stunt, the man in the corduroy cap leading a convocation of derelicts across the avenue to challenge him with their champion? They went out to find this guy, and now they are bringing him back, a thin black man in a black wool cap and a black vinyl jacket. They're pushing him forward, and they're bouncing up and down, they're so excited.
"I'll bet him!" the man in the black wool cap is declaiming. "Show me the money first! I'll wax this sucker!" He steps up, and Patton, without effort, takes him down. "Oh, you got a little knack to it, I see," the man says. He walks off, then does an about-face and returns to the black table. "I don't like the way you took me down," he says. "Let's go again. But we go when I say. Ready...go!" Patton takes him down again and then again, with his left hand, and this time the guy reaches across the table and squeezes, gently, Patton's biceps. It is a he-man's homage, and now, as the guy trudges off, the little man with the cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth walks up to Patton and says, "Is ziss the champ? Hello champ, velcome to New York. Ve like people like you."
There is a belief among arm wrestling advocates that for the sport to advance, it has to be taken out of the barroom. Too macho, the barroom—too dèclassè, too old-fashioned, too redolent of boozy brawlers and certainly not suitable for a sport supposedly being considered as a demonstration sport in the 1996 Olympics. There's a new breed of arm wrestler, you know, guys like Patton, clean and quiet, more an athlete than a character. In the old days, well, you had characters, that's for sure. Back in the '60s and '70s, when organized arm wrestling was just getting started, you had Baker and Jubinville and Dean, who were in their prime. You had Apache Dan Carr, who, after losing a match in Scranton, Pa., climbed a column of coal ash and spent the night howling at the moon. You had Mad Dog Bosley, who used to go to tournaments with a bone in his mouth, a collar around his neck and a leash connecting him to his manager's hand. You had Samson Margolese, who used to bang his head against the wall until he bled and then splash the blood in the faces of his opponents.
The sport has always been big on characters; now it has to be bigger than them, the arm wrestling advocates say. At a tournament in Hartford, for example, there is a bunch of guys who drove three hours from New Jersey, earnest young fellows, clean-cut, tattooed tastefully, if at all, eating grilled chicken and tuna salad instead of bar food, talking technique all night long. There is this handsome kid named Jason Vale, from Queens, who beat cancer a few years back and has devoted himself to arm wrestling and the Lord. There is even Dave Patton himself, presiding rather than pulling, promoting the tournament for his sponsor, Yukon Jack, a company that distills a particularly potent liquor and stages its various arm wrestling events in barrooms across the country, barrooms that attract a variety of....
Well, in arm wrestling environs, despite the presence of earnest athletes like Patton, you always come back to the characters. You can't help it. What else would you call Mickey Butkus? He calls himself Psycho. He's a wiry wisp of a kid with pale blue eyes and a scrubby satanic beard and mustache and an assortment of tattoos that are extravagant and expressive. He has on one arm an eagle flying into the sun, and on his other arm, a Tasmanian devil demolishing a scorpion, and on his chest, a broken heart. The broken heart suits Butkus because away from the arm wrestling table, he is gracious and sensitive and soft-spoken. His heart is broken, at least in part, because he knows that he will never be the arm wrestler that he had it within himself to be.
"I'm a good arm wrestler," he says. "I could be a great arm wrestler if I had all five fingers." Butkus has four fingers on his right—that is to say, his arm wrestling—hand. He lost his right index finger in a childhood farming accident, and so the techniques that the earnest fellows from New Jersey talk about all night long, the techniques Patton refined, Butkus can't use. He has to rely, instead, on strength and on the advantages that his Psycho persona give him. He has to approach the arm wrestling table with his eyes distended and fanatical and his cheeks pumping like a bellows and his mouth open in a deadly howl. He has to grip his opponent's hand and then cry, "I can't arm wrestle this guy, ref! He's got five fingers!" and then use the distraction to take the guy down. He puts on a show, Butkus does, standing on one leg like a stork, wrapping his other leg around the leg of the table, his brow broken up in a dozen herringbones, his lucky pink hat turned sideways on his head, his T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of his sponsor, a local bail bondsman.
Butkus has even made some money from arm wrestling, though not by winning tournaments. No, he sometimes makes money hustling, all the way from Vermont to Wildwood, N.J., going into bars, pretending he's wasted, luring some big lug into a pull for money and then—surprise!—pinning him in a flash and heading for the exit. The only thing Butkus doesn't do is win, at least not when it counts, late in a tournament, when the earnest fellows pay no mind to his diversions and use a technique known as the top roll—moving one's fingers higher up in the grip and rolling the wrist back to bend an opponent's wrist to the table—to attack his four-fingered hand.
When you come right down to it, the characters don't seem to win much at all. They have a different sort of role, and they know it. Roy Maurer is one of the characters. His tattoos are even more abundant and baroque than Butkus's, because his roommate was a tattoo artist, and Maurer let him practice on him. Compact and well built, he has a blond Fu Manchu mustache, and a tattoo cobra winds around his neck. He recently broke his hand "punching someone in the head," Maurer says, but he's pulling in Hartford anyway, not because he's impervious to pain but rather because he's responsive to it. He loses fairly early in the tournament, but later on he sees the guy who beat him gripping his elbow and grimacing. "I hurt him before," Maurer says. "I do that to people. They say, 'I won, but you hurt me.' I say, 'That's good; you beat me, but at least I hurt you.' I'm into pain. They say there's a thin line between pleasure and pain. I walk that line."
The characters, you see, seem to know something about arm wrestling that the advocates of the sport don't. The advocates can talk all they want about how arm wrestling is emerging from the barroom with a new sense of propriety and purpose, but the characters know that arm wrestling is a theater of pain. It is about pain. Men scream when they arm wrestle. They grunt and bellow. They start crying. In the epic contests of arm wrestling legend, their noses bleed.
In Hartford most of the matches end in an instant, but the ones that don't, the ones that go on a minute or so—a minute is a very long time in arm wrestling—or two minutes, or even three, become extravaganzas of suffering. Jason Vale, the earnest fellows from New Jersey, the disciples of Dave Patton—these, by the end of the night, are the contenders, and at one time or another they each fill the barroom with their wailing and lamentations. The characters, like Mickey and Roy, play symbolic roles, reminding newcomers how extreme the sport can be; they stand around gobbling Advils, marked for life, and when Maurer sees one neophyte go down with what looks like a broken arm, he just gazes at him, the white edge of his teeth flashing under his baleful mustache.
You don't see many broken arms in arm wrestling tournaments anymore. You used to see them fairly often, especially on ABC's Wide World of Spoils, but the referees have been alerted to what is known as "the broken-arm position"—when the wrist strays outside the plane of the shoulder—and they usually interrupt a match before torque snaps anyone's upper arm. In Hartford, though, there is a guy in the heavyweight division who broke his wrist in a motorcycle accident three years ago, and after he loses a match the same bone looks like one of those subcutaneous creatures in a horror movie, moving and pulsing and growing as the guy stares at it in terror. The guy doesn't really look like an arm wrestler. He's blond, with a soft, pinkish face, and he's not taking it very well, this beastie under his skin. He cries, "Oh mother oh mother oh mother," and lets his wife kiss his wrist.
"I told him not to do this," she says, "but he loves it so."
Maurer, who is holding his own wrist, watches this interlude of domestic tenderness and says, with his smile glinting like a razor, "I hurt mine so bad I can't lift it over my head, but you won't see me go crying in the corner."
Table time—that's all he needs. Once he arm wrestles "hundreds and hundreds and thousands of times," Paul Walther says, then he might be pretty good, then he might fulfill his dream of becoming world champion. He did come pretty close to something, though, in Hartford. Damn, he was having a night, just slamming people, coming over with his shoulder—bang! bang! bang!—and everybody was talking about him, even Dave Patton, even Sue Patton, Dave's mom, the godmother of arm wrestling, a fierce, sharp-eyed little woman who travels with her son and is a consultant for Yukon Jack.
"He has the eye of the tiger"—that's what Mrs. P was saying about Walther, and Mrs. P is never wrong about arm wrestlers. Walther is no character, that's for sure; he is, in fact, one of those earnest fellows from New Jersey, a big, serious, almost impassive guy with a long face and dark eye-F brows. He wasn't putting on a show for anyone; he had come to Hartford to win, and all night long he went quietly and politely about his business, telling everybody, "Good match," even if he flashed them in a quarter of a second, and it seemed he could go on that way forever—until he ran into George Givens.
Givens is an eight-time national champion who lives in Connecticut, works in construction and came out of retirement just for this tournament, because if Yukon Jack was going to give someone two hundred bucks and a trophy in his own backyard, he figured it might as well be him. He is about the same size as Walther and has a red beard and a headful of red curls and a hand with the texture of sandpaper and a thumb as hard as the handle of a hammer. He had had an easy night of it too, and when he got to Walther—well, Givens had the table time. He used to train with Dave Patton, he keeps an arm wrestling table at his house, and so when Walther got the jump and almost nailed him, Givens knew what to do. He waited Walther out, let him burn and then worked a top roll. Slowly, he pulled Walther's arm toward himself, stretching it, lengthening it, until Walther was just a wrist, just a hand, and Givens turned him over and pinned him. But Walther had come close! He has a future in the sport, everybody says so—hell, serious, dignified guys like him are the sport's future—and when the Yukon Jack tournament made its next stop in New Jersey, even Mrs. P expected him to win.
Walther didn't win the first night. In Yukon Jack tournaments there are three weight classes for men: lightweight (under 161 pounds), middleweight (161 to 190) and heavyweight. (Yukon Jack is the most prominent commercial sponsor of arm wrestling. The American Armwrestling Association sanctions the national amateur championship, to be held next week, in Kansas City.) Walther had to lose weight to pull as a middleweight, and that first night he felt weak from his ordeal and lost to someone he should have beaten. The second night, though, he won easily, and now, on the third night, when he comes back for the championship round, he feels pretty confident. Not overconfident—Walther isn't the kind of person who gets overconfident.
What kind of person is he? The arm wrestling kind. Arm wrestlers conform to a limited range of psychological profiles and usually turn out to be quiet guys who played some sports in high school or college, did pretty well and now, as adults, just want to do something—to compete, to prove themselves. Walther, as his wife, Christa, says, "relates" to arm wrestling—"It's in him now. He lives and breathes, sleeps and eats arm wrestling." He works as a steeplejack, repairing and demolishing industrial smokestacks, and he squeezes a hand gripper as he drives to and from the job. He wants to go to the Olympics, his whole family wants him to go to the Olympics, and now, here in New Jersey, they've come out to see him win. Of course he's gonna win. The guy he's up against, nobody even knows who he is. He's never arm wrestled in a tournament before. He doesn't have the table time, doesn't have the technique, doesn't even know what a top roll is. His name is Neil Policastro, and—well, nobody even knows how he got here.
The tournament is being held in another barroom, this time it's LT's, New York Giant star Lawrence Taylor's sports bar, off a highway in the shadow of New York City. In the middle of the room there is a big, black table, four feet high, constructed of thick black pipe. People congregate around the table—the two tribes, the large one composed of nearly everyone who knows Paul, the small one composed of a few friends of Neil and his girlfriend, Debbie. Debbie's a sexy woman, 23 years old, with long, shiny dark hair and 10 earrings in one of her ears, and she's also got a voice—"C'mon, Neee-yul!"—but Christa, with her beautiful huge eyes, has got a voice too—"C'mon, Paw-wul!"—and by the time Paul and Neil come to the table, the women's voices are dueling in counterpoint, and the sound in the barroom is rising like the sound of a jet before takeoff.
Each man grabs a peg with his left hand—his free hand—and rests his right elbow in a padded cup. They grab each other's right hands, and, with the referee overseeing the tangle—this guy Neil doesn't even know enough to seek an advantage!—they "get a grip," in arm wrestling parlance. Then the referee says, "Go!" and...
...it's over. The ref raises Neil's hand, and Paul storms off, his eyes two green flares in his reddened face, and says, "Holy——! That guy's as strong as an ox!" The tournament, though, is a double elimination: The loser must lose twice. The winner, like the winners in all 13 cities where Yukon Jack sponsors tournaments, goes to San Francisco in July to compete for the distiller's national title.
So Paul has another chance, and no way he's going to lose this time. He doesn't feel strong tonight, that's true, but he'll outsmart Neil, he'll trap him.
They face off again—"Neeeeee-yul!"—and this time Paul does everything right. Everything. He pulls Neil's arm toward him and tries to come over on his wrist with quick jerks, and Neil's arm...doesn't move. The guy's arm is like the hand of some freaking clock stuck on midnight, and he's looking Paul square in the eye, and he brings Paul's hand down slowly to the table, like a weightlifter striving for perfect form.
"Was it ever in doubt?" Neil's friends are yelling. "Was it ever in doubt? He's a freak! A freak!" Debbie's all over him now, and they head back into a booth for a beer. Some skinny, awestruck guy asks Neil where he works out.
"I don't work out," Neil says. "I just work."
"Then how'd you get so strong?" the skinny guy asks. "Do you have some kind of job?"
"He's a freak!" a friend says.
"I'm a customer representative for Pepsi," Neil says.
"A customer representative for Pepsi?"
"I told you, he's a freak," the friend says.
"Basically," Neil says, "I deliver soda all day long. I guess that makes me strong."
Neil is a freak, all right, and in the world of arm wrestling, the freaks are the true aristocrats: those who claim their strength as their birthright and owe nothing to barbells or protein supplements. The thing about arm wrestling, though, is that nobody really cares how you got strong, as long as you are strong. And so they come—the steamfitters and the soda salesmen, the champions and the characters, the ones who aspire to glory and the ones who will never be anything but grotesque.... They come to the table, all of them, and the grudge they settle is ancient and primal, and the questions they answer are the ones that haunt us all our lives: Who is the strongest, who is the toughest, and what role will we play in the theater of pain?